LONDON - In the middle of an underwater battle, Maggie Steffens somehow got free, ball in hand, with no defenders on her.
The tournament’s most valuable player made her fourth goal of the game look simple as her shot skipped off the water, hitting the low, left-hand corner of the netting.
“She’s been incredible her whole life so I don’t think she going to be stopping anytime soon,” said two-time Olympic water polo player Jessica Steffens, Maggie’s older sister. “She’s obviously kicking butt. I’m so proud of her for that, and I’m so fortunate to be able to play with her on this team.”
Led by Maggie’s five goals, the U.S. women’s water polo team defeated Spain, 8-5, Thursday night to capture its first Olympic gold medal since women’s water polo made its Olympic debut in 2000. It was Team USA’s third time playing for a gold medal after winning silver in 2000 and 2008 and bronze in 2004.
After the final buzzer sounded, Maggie, the youngest on the team at age 19, and Jessica, 25, made sure to find their dad, Carlos Steffens. That’s when Carlos, former three-time Pan American Puerto Rican water polo player, didn’t have any English words to say.
“When we went and hugged him, I hadn’t cried yet,” said Maggie, the leader in scoring at the London Games with 21 goals. “When my dad hugged me, it was instant tears. The passion came out of him. He started speaking Spanish. When he gets really emotional, his roots come out. That’s pretty amazing to be able to share that with him.”
Spain’s captain Jennifer Pareja got the scoring going 2:28 seconds into the game after the ball slammed off the left post, bounced off U.S. goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong’s back and crossed the line. Maggie’s first tally came with 50 seconds to go in the first quarter on the power play. Maggie fired a shot from the right side, skipping the ball underneath Spain’s Laura Ester Ramos’ right arm.
Maggie’s third goal of the game on a dish from older sister, Jessica, with 5:36 left in the half, put the Americans ahead for the remainder of the contest. In the fourth quarter, Spain attempted a late run, tallying three goals in a 4:46 span, which made the final score 8-5.
“I was upset actually with how we handled the last two minutes of the game,” head coach Adam Krikorian said. “I think we can do a better job there. Once we got the ball back and I saw we were up by three, I knew we were in good shape at that point.”
Armstrong posted eight saves, including a potential game-saving penalty shot stop in the fourth, while four-time Olympians Heater Petri and Brenda Villa each recorded one goal on three shots apiece.
“I don’t have words for what this medal feels like right now,” Armstrong said as she stood with it around her neck. “It’s the best feeling ever.”
Finally getting “the grandma’s” a gold medal, as Krikorian deemed Petri and Villa, bonded the team throughout their Olympic journey, Jessica said.
“They’ve been here so long,” Jessica said. “They’ve taught all of us so much. They’ve gone through everything you can imagine. Obviously we did this for our team, but we did this for them and for the history of USA water polo.”
Going into the gold medal game, the Americans and Europeans were evenly matched with Team USA scoring 50 goals in five games compared to Spain’s 52 and the U.S. firing 136 shots, 13 less than Spain. Maggie Steffens scored on 72.70 percent of her shots taken before the final game.
And Krikorian was not surprised at all with Maggie’s consistent dominance.
“To be honest, I had that vision for her,” Krikorian said about the 2012 Games. “I knew she would be here, in this moment. I knew she’d play just like that… She’s a fierce competitor. One of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever coached.”